Sugar and spice Thank heaven for little girls, and for movies like 'Madeline' that get things just so.

July 10, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

Lifelong fans of the Madeline book series will be pleased to know that "Madeline," Daisy von Scherler Mayer's screen adaptation of the classic, does Ludwig Bemelmans proud.

Lively, colorful and blessed with a cast uncannily equipped to play Madeline and the denizens of her Paris school, "Madeline" is a delight not just for young ones but for their grown-up companions as well.

From its opening sequence of animated drawings in the style of Bemelmans, who wrote and illustrated the first Madeline book in 1939, "Madeline" stays true to his original vision. Its bright palette shines fetchingly against the gray Paris skyline, and von Scherler Mayer has found just the right young actress who plays its title character. Hatty Jones, who makes her debut as the errant and heroic Madeline, embodies the red-headed insouciance, angelic countenance and enterprising vim that have made her one of literature's most enduring heroines.

"In an old house in Paris all covered with vines " So begins Bemelmans' story, and so begins "Madeline." Von Scherler Mayer has taken pains to find just the right narrow, mansard-roofed maison to portray Madeline's famous school. Even more reassuringly, she's found just the right 12 girls to arrange in very straight lines. Keeping their straw hats straight and blue jumpers just so is the indefatigable Miss Clavel, played with correct measures of firmness and warmth by Frances McDormand.

"Madeline" takes its plot from three of the books, in addition to the original: "Madeline and the Bad Hat," "Madeline's Rescue" and "Madeline and the Gypsies," and screenwriters Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett have done an excellent job in merging their stories into a bright and compelling tale.

Madeline's adventures in the movie include becoming a vegetarian, getting her appendix out, learning about death, almost drowning in the Seine, making the acquaintance of a very irritating boy next door and liberating a cage full of baby mice.

The high jinks of "Madeline" are given extra narrative tension by an underlying crisis: Lord Covington (a.k.a. Lord Cucuface), played with dry hauteur by Nigel Hawthorne, plans to sell the school, a circumstance that would leave Madeline, orphaned in the movie, homeless.

Von Scherler Mayer, whose first two movies were the pert "Party Girl" and the disappointing "Woo," brings a vivid sense of design and wonderful eye for color to "Madeline," which exploits the muted halftones of Paris and makes the most of the bright reds, yellows and blues of the girls' uniforms.

Setting the story in the 1950s lends the film an attractive retro appeal.

Costume designer Michael Clancy has outdone himself, especially with the girls' confectionary party dresses and the to-die-for couture suits worn by Mrs. Spanish Ambassador (the mother of that irritating little boy).

Children will adore the movie's sprightly energy, although kids under 4 may become restless toward the end of its hour-and-a-half running time; a scene wherein a dog was almost discovered and given the boot upset a youngster at a recent screening so much that she had to leave. But kids familiar with the "Madeline" books and videos should be delighted by their heroine's big screen debut -- about which, as Miss Clavel herself might say, something is very right.

'Madeline'

Starring Hatty Jones, Frances McDormand, Nigel Hawthorne

Directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer

Released by TriStar Pictures

Rated PG (momentary language)

Running time: 89 minutes

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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